“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
– attributed to Gloria Steinem
Judaism requires the relentless pursuit of truth, but it also acknowledges that often this search leads us to very dark places. Some truths will make you relieved and hopeful, but others will make you furious. That’s completely fine. More than fine – it’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. That anger is what it feels like to have your eyes opened or your consciousness raised. Yes, you will be called a “social justice warrior” or a “snowflake,” and probably an “angry feminist” if you happen to focus on issues of gender equality. People will remark that you seem awfully upset, and suggest that you need to calm down. Those comments are certainly meant as insults by those who throw them at you, but that doesn’t mean you have to take them that way.
If you know what’s really going on in the world, you should be angry. Your attitude is not in need of adjustment. You do not need to calm down or stop being so easily offended. Being angry is not evidence that something is wrong with you. On the contrary, it shows that there is nothing wrong with you, that your moral intuition and your innate sense of justice are functioning properly. When good people react to the truth about the world with anger, that means there is something wrong with the world. If learning the facts makes you angry, it’s just because there is so much to be angry about.
It should make you angry that 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar per day. It should make you angry that 35,000 children die from hunger every day and that 12 million people die from lack of clean water every year. It should make you angry that 17% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources, and that the richest 500 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 170 countries.
It should make you angry that income inequality in America is currently higher than it’s been since 1928. You should be angry that Americans in the top 10% now average nearly nine times as much income as the bottom 90%, that those in the top 1% average over 38 times more income than the bottom 90%, and that the 0.1% make over 184 times the income of the bottom 90%. It should make you angry that the average difference between worker and CEO pay was eight times larger in 2015 than in 1980. It should make you angry that, taking inflation into account, wages in America have stagnated for more than three decades. It should make you angry that between 1979 and 2007, the income of the top 1% went up by over 256%, while the bottom 90% saw only a 16.7% increase from 1979 to 2014.
It should make you angry that every night in America, 750,000 people are homeless. It should make you angry that 21% of American children live in poverty, and that this is a much higher number than in almost any other developed nation in the world. It should make you angry that it is practically impossible to make enough money to live like a person when you are paid minimum wage; to support a family of four, two adults would need to work nearly four full-time minimum-wage jobs to earn a living wage. You should be angry that a single parent with two children earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 139 hours per week (more hours than there are in a five day week) in order to earn a living wage.
It should make you angry that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to American women between the ages of 15 and 44 – more than car accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined. It is infuriating that every day, three women in the United States are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. It should make you angry that one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and that college girls have learned to go to frat parties saying “leave no woman behind,” like soldiers going into battle. It should make you angry that police officers disbelieve rape victims, to such an extent that the Philadelphia sex crimes unit was referred to as the “lying bitches unit.” And it should make you angry that people are always looking for a way to blame rape victims — she was dressed like a slut, she led him on, she was embarrassed the next morning and invented a false accusation, she went to a bar alone. She fought back too hard, she didn’t fight back hard enough. Just walking down the street as a woman is seen as an “invitation” to rape. It should make you angry, if you’re a woman, that you can’t tell a street harasser to get lost without considering the possibility that he will slash you with a box-cutter or shoot you in the face.
It should make you angry that school dress codes forbid girls to wear clothes that don’t hide the fact that they have bodies, and those bodies are female. It should make you angry that educators justify these restrictions by saying, with straight faces, that leggings are forbidden because they are “too distracting for the boys” or make male teachers “uncomfortable.” It should make you angry that girls are being taught that they are responsible for boys’ behavior because of the way they dress. It should make you angry that more than 70 percent of Gen X and Boomer men that say their careers are more important than their wives’, and 86 percent say that their wives take primary responsibility for child care. It should make you angry that 60% of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed in the workplace, and 90% have witnessed sexist behavior at work. It should make you angry that when women have children, their salaries go down while their husbands’ go up. It should make you angry that it takes professional women twice as much time and three times as much money just to walk into a room looking equally as professional as their male colleagues. It should make you angry that a certain standard of beauty is demanded of women as an entry ticket to social and professional success, and then angry again at people who say they are vain for pursuing it. It should make you angry that successful professional women are liked less because of their success. And it should make you angry that women get less credit for being team players at work because they are expected to do the “office housework,” just like they are expected to do the housework at home. It should make you angry that women’s deodorant costs more than men’s, even though under the gender-coded packaging it’s the same damn thing. And it should make you angry that tampons are taxed as a luxury item, because apparently it’s selfish to be a young woman and not be pregnant, and extravagant to want to avoid waking up in a pool of your own blood.
It should make you angry that a woman can only expect to make at most 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. It should make you angry that Native American women make 65 cents, Black women make 64 cents and Latina women make only 54 cents. And it should make you angry that everyone knows about the 78 cents number but no one ever seems to mention the other three. It should make you angry that the gender pay gap will probably not be closed in your lifetime, and that it exists even for young children doing household chores.
It should make you angry that fat women are less likely to be hired than either thin women or fat men. It should make you angry that fat people often receive worse medical care because of doctors’ refusal to make any diagnosis other than fat. It should make you angry that people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, and that the poverty rate for people with disabilities is nearly 50%. It should make you angry that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and 68% of them cite family rejection as the major factor in their becoming homeless. It should make you angry that trans people are being painted as sexual predators while defense attorneys argue that their murderers should be punished less harshly.
It should make you angry that white families are wealthier than Black or Latino families, even when you control for individual differences in education, family structure, full- or part-time employment, and consumption habits. It should make you angry that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. It should make you angry that Black infants have more than twice the death rate of white infants, and that new evidence points to racial discrimination as the dominant factor in explaining why so many Black babies are dying. It should make you angry that many white doctors and nurses actually believe that Black people feel less pain – and treat them accordingly. It should make you angry that according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, Black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls, and Black boys are suspended three times as often as white boys.
It should make you angry that the American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people, and that one in five people are locked up for a nonviolent drug offense. It should make you angry that one in nine Black children have a parent behind bars, and that one in thirteen Black adults cannot vote because of their criminal records. It should make you angry that the American prison population is 40% Black, while the population as a whole is only 13% Black. And you should be even angrier when you think about the fact that white people actually use drugs at higher rates than Black people (including law enforcement priority drugs like crack), and that white and Black teens deal drugs at approximately the same rates. You should be furious about Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, and all the others whose names you don’t know because police killings of unarmed Black people don’t even make the news most of the time.
Of course you’re angry. The real question is: WHY ISN’T EVERYONE??
There is nothing at all wrong with being angry. On the contrary, there is something deeply wrong with failing to be angry in the face of injustice. If you can read through that list of injustices and not get even a little bit angry, there is something wrong with you. Your sense of justice is broken and it needs to be fixed.
As Aristotle says, part of being a good person is knowing when and about what and to what degree to be angry. Getting angry all the time and over nothing is the wrong way to live, but so is placidly ignoring egregious injustice. Virtuous people react appropriately to the situation, and in some situations the right thing to do is to get angry. The correct response to injustice is anger. And when the injustice is enormous, the anger should be enormous too.
But don’t misunderstand — anger does not mean despair. Being angry about injustice doesn’t make me depressed or exhausted. Seeing the injustices perpetuated by my country on its citizens does not make me believe less in its ideals. Knowing that people do terrible things to each other does not make me believe less in the human capacity for good. Anger is not the opposite of hope.
Righteous anger at injustice burns, but does not consume. We are not full of hate because we are angry. On the contrary, our anger is evidence that we are full of love. We are often angriest at the people closest to us, when they betray or disappoint us. That anger is rooted in a fundamental belief that our loved ones are capable of better, and a furious demand that they change their behavior and become their best selves as we see them. To be angry at injustice is to love the world enough to believe it can change.
Not giving in to despair is an act of defiance against forces arguing that the status quo is unchanging and it is futile to speak out against it. Anger in the face of injustice is a powerful expression of the belief that positive change is possible. I am angry because I believe injustice is not an immutable fixture of the world, but rather a problem to be solved. And I believe injustice can be remedied, not in a utopian fantasy or the distant future, but now — in our time, through the efforts of people who are alive and fighting as we speak. I suppose you could call that belief “faith.”
The belief in the possibility of change is what fuels my anger, and what motivates me to fight for the world I believe is possible. Righteous anger is a powerful force for good. Don’t fight it – embrace it. And then use it to fix the world.
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